City Riding: a trail-riding guide for the urban equestrian
Born and raised in Wyoming, I grew accustomed to being able to ride my horses anywhere and everywhere. Only rarely were places off-limits, and never were they off-limits because my horses refused to go where I pointed them. They were as bold—and, arguably, in some cases, as stupid—as I was about going to new places and doing unfamiliar things. After a bad decision on my part to see what it would be like to gallop my gelding across a golf course, a week of painting golf-cart sheds and raking sand traps to pay for my little adventure taught me to have a bit more discretion when it came to choosing appropriate places to take my horses.
I no longer live in rural Wyoming, and I’ve long since moved on from my bomb-proof and loyal pony mare and my steadfast Quarter-horse gelding that used to carry me unwaveringly into the unknown. However, I haven’t lost my spirit of adventure and I still never balk at the thought of going new places and encountering strange things on horseback. Since moving to the Denver area in 2012, my out-of-arena experiences have taken on a more urban feel, and like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” I had a few things to learn about navigating my unfamiliar new surroundings.
You might be thinking to yourself, “Why would you want to risk riding down a city street or crossing a busy intersection when you could just ride in your stable’s safe and predictable arena?” This is a reasonable question, as it might seem stupidly dangerous to venture outside of the arena into such an unstable environment as a city sidewalk, where anything can happen and very little is within your control. The advantages of having the world be your obstacle course are many, though, and if approached correctly, city riding will provide you and your horse with enough confidence, entertainment and skills to outweigh the risks.
First of all, the notion that the arena is inherently a safe place to be on horseback is erroneous. Many an accomplished horseman have been seriously injured and even killed in an arena setting, and anyone who’s been on a horse more than handful of times has a story about a horse getting spooked or doing something unexpected while in an arena. I will concede that the arena is generally safer than the outside world, but to think that you can’t get hurt there is simply incorrect. There are many things you can control in the arena, at least to some degree: the obstacles you will encounter, the people you will run into, the terrain, the traffic, the dogs, the lighting, etc. Also, there are many things that will often be outside of your control, no matter where your ride, such as weather, the other riders and their horses that you must share the space with, the sounds both inside and outside of the riding space and so on. The number one unpredictable factor of any ride is the horse underneath you, and for all the training, bonding, practicing, and painstaking control of your riding environment in the world, he’s ultimately still his own living, breathing, thinking and reacting creature. Anyone who’s made the informed decision to be involved with horses has accepted this risk of the sport.
I’ve known riders who are so concerned about the predictability of their environment that they will get to the barn ready to ride and then not even take their horse out out of his stall because “there’s too much going on in the arena.” Making the decision not to ride a very young or green horse in an unstable setting can be wise, at least until the trainer is confident that the horse in ready for a few distractions; however, the majority of the time I hear someone voice her concern about riding “with too much going on” it has less to do with the horse’s current level of training and more to do the rider’s own lack of confidence and willingness to ride around so much hustle and bustle.
Sound familiar? Learning to ride outside in the world could do wonders for such people’s confidence in navigating less-than-predictable situations, and the prospect of dealing with a little speed demon tearing around the arena on his pony or an unfamiliar set of jump standards in your riding space feels a lot less daunting after having successfully stood your ground to a barking and lunging dog or the honking of a bus horn while crossing a busy street.
That being said, I believe the arena is practically an indispensable tool for any horse person who hopes to ride out into the big, scary world as safely as possible. You should always start your ride in the arena, especially on a green or an unfamiliar horse to feel him out and to make sure you have brakes and steering in a more controlled environment than a busy street. Any training adjustments such as reinforcing or teaching voice commands, getting used to new tack and/or riders, working on attaining a soft, prompt and willing response to the application of aids, desensitizing a spooky mount, etc. need to take place in an enclosed space before heading out of the arena. This is true for horses who are to be ridden on a rural trek through the woods, but even more true for the city horse.
You will use the arena to introduce in controlled doses as many new and scary stimuli as you can rustle up. Use your imagination! It doesn’t so much matter what you use, so long as your horse sees that when something is scary and you won’t let him run away from it, he won’t die or get hurt. Tarps are always a very good option for teaching this lesson, as are those foam noodles that you see kids with in the pool—essentially anything that looks, sounds and maybe smells scary but won’t actually cause him any harm, even if he does have an altercation with it. I knew one rider who hung old junk tarps between the trees in her riding area and taught her horses to fearlessly ride through them, illustrating how even trash can be valuable when it comes to training!
Exercises like these are one way to establish trust, an important ingredient for any successful city ride. Your horse must trust you enough to listen to you and obediently go where you tell him to go, even if he’s not sure about it. This doesn’t happen overnight, but through consistent, fair handling and always insisting on obedience—or at least an honest effort to be obedient—he will soon know that it’s in his best interest to obey you and will look to you for guidance in scary situations rather than trying to escape.
You obviously won’t be able to expose him to everything in the arena that you may come into contact with outside of the arena, so the exercise is less about desensitizing him to specific stimuli and more about building a relationship of trust and obedience and setting a precedent for the kind of behavior you expect when something scary comes into the picture. I will never punish a horse for a startle or brief spook. After all, even I have the potential to start if something unexpected takes me by surprise. What I don’t allow to happen is that the desire to flee overtake the horse’s ability to listen to his handler. A horse might get wide-eyed and startle easily at new things, but as long as he’s able to control his subsequent reactions and not bolt, buck or rear then he’s allowed to have his initial reaction. The best response for the rider in spooky situations is a non-response since any acknowledgement of the horse’s reaction or the stimulus to which he reacted will only reinforce that there is reason to be afraid. If the horse starts at something, just continue along as if it never happened and the startle response is less likely to become a bolt or other undesirable action.
While it’s important for just about every horse to be able to control his spooky nature enough to listen to a handler, it can mean the difference between life and death when you are out of the arena and in the street. While you can predict and desensitize for the most common of scary stimuli, there’s no way you can ever reproduce every possible scenario in the arena before heading out, so confidence that your horse can listen to you when the stakes are high is an absolute must.
In the three years I’ve been riding in Denver my horses and I have had to pass by several cement trucks and construction sites; we have had a bag of yard waste almost hit us as an unsuspecting landscaper threw it out of his truck; we had fireworks shot at us (probably the scariest incident to date); a group of intoxicated homeless men and women gave us a standing ovation complete with whistles, cheers and applause; we have had countless dogs of all sizes try to take us on; we have encountered all kinds of city-dwelling (not-so-wild) wildlife; we have passed through tunnels, overpasses and drive-thrus; the mares have spent many a lazy afternoon tied to a Starbucks’ sign at a busy intersection while I sipped a beverage inside; we’ve experienced strollers, bikes, flashing Christmas lights and other scary seasonal decorations, skateboards and groups of school children all wanting to pet the horses; we’ve braved all sorts of diverse traffic, from buses to motorcycles and everything in between. None of this would have been possible on a horse who will panic and not be able to take instruction.
In addition to developing trust and working on desensitization exercises, the arena is also the appropriate place to teach your horse voice-commands, an indispensable tool for any well-rounded animal who’s to be ridden in town. While a comprehensive guide to teaching a horse voice-commands is covered in another blog post, suffice it to say that a horse ought to at the very least stop in his tracks when he hears the “whoa” command. This reaction to the word “whoa” ought to be second nature so that even in a panicked situation, saying it will elicit the desired response.
While it should go without saying, I’ll say it again anyway, the rider needs to have a helmet and any other appropriate safety gear before taking her horse anywhere. What constitutes “other appropriate safety gear” will vary from one individual to the next, but the necessity of a helmet is non-debatable. This is no more true than when venturing out into the city, which is full of hard surfaces and potentials to come off your mount.
For your horse, safety gear will include bare feet, rubber boots (such as Easyboots) or bohrium studs on his feet and some sort of reflective gear, bright colors or light-up tack for his body, especially if you’ll be riding close to or after dusk. The reason for the special footwear (or lack of footwear) is that regular shod feet on concrete can seem a whole lot more like ice skating than horseback riding. Your particular choice of hoof protection (or lack thereof) will depend on your individual horse and his needs, but a good place to start is to let your farrier know at his or her next visit that you plan on spending some time on concrete, and see what he or she recommends.
As a horse trainer, I will often pony a horse who’s new to the city out on a couple of excursions with a consistent older companion before taking him on his first outdoor ride. I only do this after having done my homework in the arena and I’m as certain as I can be that the horse is ready to see new sights without the safety of soft footing and confinement. The horse I pony from should be extremely solid out on the town and will be used to working with the youngster we have in tow since we will have practiced this skill to perfection in the arena. After careful practice, the newbie will feel confident in his safety as long as he is with his older companion and it will not occur to him to try to get away. The pony horse will be fitted with protective leg-wear in case a spooking baby collides with his legs, and he will also be outfitted in a western saddle with a breast collar in case the need arises to dally the rope around the horn. In addition to the ever-important helmet, I will don gloves to protect my hands from rope burn.The youngster will have the appropriate footwear for street travel, a rope halter with about a ten foot cotton lead rope (brightly colored, if possible), and for additional safety it’s not a bad idea to fix some sort of identifying information on the halter for the worst-case scenario in which he somehow breaks free and can’t be caught immediately.
While ponying is a great training tool, it should only be considered an option by the most experienced horse-people. For all other riders, it’s best to opt out of this step and instead consider hand-walking a young horse on a mini-tour of a local neighborhood. If possible, recruit another horse owner with an older, bomb-proof “role model” horse to take this walk with you so that your horse still has the advantage of having a buddy who will show him the ropes. If this isn’t an option, you will just have to fill the role of confident leader and herd buddy for him. For this step, gloves are a must. You can take my word for it, or try your luck holding on to a fractious or pushy youngster when something scary blows by in the wind with only your naked hands on the rope. You would hate to have to make a decision between keeping the skin on your hands or keeping your horse. And don’t forget barn-appropriate toe covers (i.e. boots)!
Once you have done your homework and you are ready to head out into the big world, keep common courtesy in mind. Check local laws to make sure you are not breaking any by riding in certain areas (for example, some parks are explicitly off-limits to equestrians). As it turns out, I have yet to find a city that has outlawed riding in its streets. However, it wouldn’t take long for this to change if equestrians started coming out in droves and not minding their p’s and q’s.
Check what your locality has to say about horse poop in the streets, since many have different rules. In Golden, CO, where my horses currently live, the law does not require that equestrians pick up their poo from public property since it would be logistically cumbersome and horse poo does not pose a public health hazard the way uncollected dog poo can. Other municipalities may feel differently. Regardless of what the laws say about horse poo on public property, you may want to bring a method of collection in case your horse happens to poo on someone's driveway or when you're going through a parking lot of some local business since not everyone appreciates the free fertilizer left on their private property. Attaching one of those little telescoping shovels to your saddle is an easy way to be ready to remedy a poo-problem. Usually, you can find a nearby Dumpster to deposit your horse's calling card, or even just throw it into some nearby bushes on public land where not a lot of foot traffic will pass.
While the rules on the trail may give equestrians the right-of-way in virtually every situation, I always err on the side of caution and assume I’m the last one who has the right to any space in the city. I let pedestrians, bikers and strollers have the right-of-way before my four-legged ride. Be a good ambassador for equestrians everywhere--answer people's questions about your ride, avoid trampling yards and gardens, and be prepared to let children greet your horse (if he has experience with children, of course).
Follow all traffic signals the same as you would on foot. This means waiting at crosswalks for the green light, no jay-riding and yield to oncoming traffic. Be prepared for horns to honk. Many people in cars do not know that horses are not just like giant, fearless dogs and will honk their horn simply because they are excited and want to say hello. Resist the urge to flash them an obscene gesture, and be confident that the homework you did with your horse will keep you safe if such a thing occurs.
With the fast-paced growth urban America eating up the rural areas that are so valuable to the horseback rider, learning to ride in a city setting is simply part of evolving as an equestrian to allow your passion to fit into modern reality. More and more riders across the country are faced with fewer and fewer options for riding space outside of the arena. By learning how to minimize the risks and take advantage of the benefits of city riding, the world can once again belong to those on horseback.